Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Expert tears into cat conspiracy

Wildcat. Pic: Steve Piper/Scottish Wildcat Association
The Scottish wildcat is among the country's rarest animals

Before Christmas, a 74-year-old woman told police she was injured by a 3ft-long cat while putting out her bins.

Pat MacLeod, of Alness, Ross-shire, suffered deep cuts to her legs and cuts and scratches on her hands.

Police and wildlife experts ruled out a Scottish wildcat being responsible and said it could have been a feral cat.

Writing for the BBC Scotland news website, film-maker and Scottish Wildcat Association trustee Steve Piper said conspiracies about wildcats remained.


It's not often you get to see transmogrification of species outside of Hollywood movies, but just last week I had such an opportunity as I watched a large stray cat turn into a mountain lion in the space of a few short days.

About a week ago I had a call from the police asking my opinion on Scottish wildcat behaviour.

They relayed to me the story of a lady in the Highlands who had been attacked by a feline and wondered if it could be a wildcat.

WILDCAT FACTFILE
About 400 Scottish wildcats remain in the wild
Habitats include coniferous and deciduous forest
Their diet is mainly rodents, but they also hunt larger mammals as well as birds, lizards and frogs

This particular cat had been digging through the lady's bins, then leaped out and attacked her legs when she went to put out some rubbish.

Described as being grey and around 3ft long it appeared the cat was a large feral or stray cat, hadn't heard her approach and attacked when it suddenly noticed her almost on top of it.

A few weeks previously a completely different cat, a little larger, had attacked the same lady when she bravely stepped in to stop it attacking a pet cat.

We agreed with the police that while either cat could be a hybrid with a few wildcat genes within it, these were behaviours typical to wild-living feral cats and it was pure terrible luck that had taken place. The police intended to look at it some more and establish for certain if the cat might be best re-homed by someone like Cats Protection.

A few days later a series of media stories found their way to me, starting with the story of a 3ft feral, progressing to a 4ft "big cat" and culminating in a possible puma that had stalked the lady through the woods before charging after her and trying to drag her off to its lair - twice.

According to reports, police were apparently now telling people to lock themselves in their homes while the big cat lurked the Highlands.

Interestingly, transmogrification happens a lot with big cats in the UK - like the lion that turned out to be a Canadian lynx about the same size as a wildcat; or the black panther that turned out to be a soft toy; or the other black panther that turned out to be a cardboard cut-out; or the innumerable black panthers that turned out to be a farm cat.

Steve Piper
Steve Piper said people should appreciate Scotland's wildlife

The media love tales of British big cats.

Every now and then a wild cat species does escape a private collection, but it has no idea how to hunt, most are designed for very hot climates and even if that doesn't get them then gamekeepers, farmers, their lack of any road sense or anything else to breed with certainly will.

When these stories help fascinate people with nature they're a perfectly good thing. But when a scared feral turns into a puma it's nothing but a bad thing for wild animals right in the heart of Britain's last bit of wilderness.

A few days on from the big cat publicity, Chinese whispers had led to internet blogs discussing the woman dragged off by a Scottish wildcat - putting our real, and almost extinct, wild feline in the undeserved position of blame and potential retaliation.

People all over the world share space with real big cats, bears, wolves and other huge predators every day, but human attacks remain rare and are almost always attributed to misunderstanding or panic reactions.

Here in the UK that pattern has ruled for millennia, eradicating the British lynx, wolf and bear, almost eradicating the wildcat and now, imagining big cats in street moggies, we've removed ourselves so far from what nature really is that it terrifies us and we'd rather take a route of panic and eradication than simply learn how to live alongside and appreciate.

World changed

Almost all of our wilderness and larger wildlife is gone from these islands, and though we spend a lot of time lecturing other nations on how they should be caring for theirs it's tragically clear we're still not following our own advice.

What little that is left is getting developed fast and unsustainably. A classic example is Scottish wildcats, which have almost been wiped out - and this poorly reported and largely fabricated big cat story can only hasten that demise.

I spent the first 30 years of my life living in suburban towns and my whole world changed in a single week camping in the Highlands.

Seeing other people discouraged from making that same discovery with ridiculous exaggerations is truly tragic, so my comments to anyone living under the threat of "big cat" attacks is that winter is the perfect opportunity to get out into nature.

Follow animal footprints in the snow, put out some seed for the birds and maybe get lucky with a glimpse of the real and almost extinct wildcat.

Take your kids out for an afternoon walk and teach them how special nature is, how important animals are to it and the simple steps we need to take to be safe living alongside them.

You'll remember the day more than you'll ever remember 500 channels of repeats on satellite TV.


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SEE ALSO
Woman injured in 'big cat' attack
19 Dec 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Big cat sightings on rise in Fife
11 Oct 07 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
DNA could help Scottish wildcats
30 Jun 07 |  Scotland
Print 'proof' of big cat presence
01 Feb 06 |  Scotland

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